Plans to exploit underground gas in Scotland were dealt a major blow yesterday when the Scottish government announced that it was going to require buffer zones around drilling sites in order to protect local communities.
Protestors were told by the Scottish environment minister, Paul Wheelhouse, that the government was intending to toughen up the planning rules for onshore gas developments like coalbed methane and shale gas. “This government listens to local communities and those calling for stronger environmental protection,” he said.
It was the introduction of two-kilometre buffer zones around proposed gas wells in New South Wales, Australia, that forced developer, Dart Energy, to abandon them in favour of pursuing its plans for Scotland. The company’s application to sink 22 wells to extract methane from underground coal seams at Airth near Falkirk has prompted over 2,500 objections and is due to heard at a public inquiry early in 2014.
According to the Scottish government, any proposals to mine for underground gas will now have to “provide an adequate buffer zone between sites and settlements.” But it hasn’t specified how wide the buffer zones should be.
Environmentalists calculate that if it is two kilometres as in Australia, at least half of the wells Dart plans at Airth will be ruled out, making the development economically unviable.
“This is a huge problem for Dart Energy’s current plans for drilling for gas in Scotland,” said Mary Church, head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth Scotland. “Dart should see which way the wind is blowing and give up now.”
She welcomed the government’s move, but called on ministers to go further and ban underground gas exploitation. She was joined by WWF Scotland, who argued that fossil fuels had to be “left in the ground” in order to cut pollution that is disrupting the climate.
Dart Energy said it would review the detail of the government’s planning changes when they became available. But the company expected the changes to be consistent with the government’s “science-based approach”, a spokesman told the Sunday Herald.
He added: “The proposed coalbed methane development at Airth is being dealt with under the current planning regime and the company is satisfied that its health, safety and environmental policies and procedures for the development are already very robust.”